15 July 2016

Expert Advice: Utilising Internal Knowledge

Daniel Gallan

According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary and Thesaurus, an ‘expert’ is defined as someone “having or showing special skill or knowledge because of what you have been taught or what you have experienced.” Elite sport is littered with experts, and countless others who fancy themselves as one. With all that expertise floating around, coaches and managers are often tempted to bring in an external source of knowledge to improve their athletes’ performance. But is this necessary? What if a shift in mindset turned the focus inward and tapped into the wealth of internal knowledge within the playing group? CONQA Sport speaks with Paddy Upton and discovers that the solution to the problem is often right under your nose.  

The Indian Test team gather in a huddle during a match against England at Edgbaston. Paddy Upton, during his time as Gary Kirsten's assistant coach, helped instil a unified philosophy within the Indian team.  Image supplied by Action Images / Andrew Boyers

The Indian Test team gather in a huddle during a match against England at Edgbaston. Paddy Upton, during his time as Gary Kirsten's assistant coach, helped instil a unified philosophy within the Indian team. Image supplied by Action Images / Andrew Boyers

Only romantics and zealots believe in the notion of fate, which is why sports fans fall head first into the ideology. We’re suckers. We’re saps. We’re hopeless idealists who try to make sense of the random hodge-podge in an industry rife with human error and chance.

Don’t be too hard on us. Believing in powers that exist beyond the confines of the playing field allows us to fall in love with teams and athletes who constantly let us down. It’s the heart, rather than the brain, that pulls the strings of a sports fan.

Even the most cynical among us who scoff at the concept of fate would struggle to pour cold water on the fairy tale that is Pravin Tambe and his dramatic rise as one of the most unlikely heroes in world cricket.

In 2013, the Rajasthan Royals were set to embark on their Champions League campaign against the best domestic teams around the world when fate dished up a massive setback. Three of their star players were found guilty of spot-fixing – deliberately and dishonestly determining the outcome of a specific part of the match – and were subsequently banned from taking part in the competition.

Two of those players, Ajit Chandila and Ankeet Chavan were spinners. Head coach, Paddy Upton, on the eve of one of the most important tournaments of his life, did not have a frontline spinner. Enter Tambe.

Tambe was a 41 year old leg spinner who had spent his career toiling away in anonymity as a club cricketer in Mumbai and had failed to make an impression in the Indian Premier League (IPL) when given the chance. His rotund midriff might have been acceptable in the early years of professional cricket, but was well out of place in 2013.

Despite this, Upton, who had no other card to play, saw something in the overweight and unknown bowler and selected him as the Royals’ main spinner on the eve of the tournament. His performances defied belief.

Tambe played all six matches on the way to the final picking up three man-of-the-match awards for his 12 wickets at just 4.1 runs per over. In the 199 deliveries that he bowled in the Champions League, he was only hit for three 4s and not a single 6. That is an astonishing statistic in a format where boundaries are swatted past the fence with the same ease and disdain as a cow’s tail swats away flies.

Though the Royals would narrowly lose the final, Tambe cemented his place in the pantheon of athletes who benefited from the great cosmic lottery that is fate. Tambe’s rise is just another heart-warming story about the long overlooked athlete whose pluck and resolve finally got him the recognition he deserved. A diamond that just needed polishing. An ugly duck who turned out to be a chubby swan. Well, not quite.

No doubt Tambe possessed talent, and no doubt his performances were the result of hard work and great skill, but a revelation from Upton offers a pragmatic explanation for this remarkable story. Not only that, but this principle can be applied by all coaches and athletes.

Upton used the expertise available to him within the playing group. At practice in the nets, Upton assembled his biggest hitting batsmen, among them Shane Watson and Ajinkya Rahane, and told them to try and bludgeon every ball Tambe bowled for 6.

Once they had finished batting, they were instructed to explain to Tambe which balls were easy to hit and which were difficult. Upton even went so far as to position one of these big hitters next to Tambe at the top of his run up to offer ball-by-ball advice.

Instead of appointing an external spin bowling consultant, Upton brought together the collective intelligence within the squad. Makes sense right? The men actually trying to hit the ball are reasonably the best source of insight on which balls are easy to hit.

Through these conversations, Tambe honed his technique and eradicated the balls that his teammates were smashing. The results speak for themselves.

Sounds almost too simple, doesn’t it, but the strategy that Upton implemented is not meant to be complicated. These are professional athletes with a wealth of knowledge who understand the modern game because they’re playing the modern game. As Upton says, “The people who are most qualified to speak [in what is working and what isn’t] are the ones who are actually playing.”

Upton, a former player himself, has been involved in elite cricket coaching since 1994, first as a physical fitness coach and then as a mental conditioning coach. As Gary Kirsten’s assistant coach of the Indian national side, Upton helped secure the number one Test ranking as well as the 2011 World Cup before the pair teamed up in the same roles for South Africa.

After once again assisting a national team to the number one Test ranking, Upton began his journey as a head coach in his own right with a number of domestic teams across the world. He is currently in charge of three teams – the Delhi Daredevils in India, the Lahore Qalandars in Pakistan and the reigning champions of Australia’s Big Bash League, the Sydney Thunder.

With all this experience, Upton has come to realise that the coaching staff should act as facilitators to problem solving rather than overt problem solvers themselves. “In traditional teams it is expected that the answer to a problem sits on the coaching bench which is a seriously limited pool of knowledge,” says Upton, a man who ardently strives to be anything but traditional. “If that is the only place that knowledge is coming from, you can expect a narrowed solution to the problem.”

It is Upton’s wish to create teams that are more intelligent than the opposition. Teams filled with players who understand the nuances of in-game strategy and who are emboldened to take risks and express their individualism. This is made easy when everyone in the team is bought in to the philosophy by contributing to the decision-making process, thereby empowering them to share insight.

Empowerment, however, is not simply being granted permission to do something. Upton explains: “If I just empower someone, by definition, I have the power and all I’m doing is bestowing responsibility. I have to create an environment where everyone, no matter their rank within the team, feels empowered.”

Dale Steyn celebrates taking the wicket of Sri Lanka's Thisara Perera during the ICC World Twenty20 World Cup in India earlier this year. Steyn has receieved over 100 pieces of advice from so-called experts throughout his career but has dismissed over 90% of that.  Image supplied by Action Images / Adnan Abidi.

Dale Steyn celebrates taking the wicket of Sri Lanka's Thisara Perera during the ICC World Twenty20 World Cup in India earlier this year. Steyn has receieved over 100 pieces of advice from so-called experts throughout his career but has dismissed over 90% of that. Image supplied by Action Images / Adnan Abidi.

This is done in two ways. Firstly, players are encouraged to speak their mind in team meetings provided their input is for the good of the team. “I try to make the highest reward be the courage to make the contribution rather than the actual content of the contribution,” Upton says. There’s no such thing as a stupid answer and players must never feel shy or embarrassed if their suggestion gets shot down.

Secondly, Upton provides positive reinforcement whenever a player speaks up. This could be a simple nod or a smile that sends out a subliminal message, especially to the younger players, that contributions are not only welcome, but valued.

Upton recounts an example of this: “Sanju Samson [21 year old wicket-keeper for the Daredevils] was making his debut for the team in the IPL this season and in our very first game he gave the pre-match talk in the huddle. Normally it would be a senior player or the coach or captain. If the coach or captain has to speak moments before a game, they haven’t done their job. So by choosing a younger player, it sends a message out to other young players so they feel empowered. I create opportunities where people are rewarded for speaking and that permeates throughout the environment.”

This in turn creates a culture where the expertise within the group is utilised. Upton explains that throughout his coaching career, he has found that players can often be resistant to external coaches as they can interpret outsiders and their ideas as “imposing”.

All coaches, whether they are permanently involved in the team or have been sourced externally, come with their own understanding of how things should be done. Each coach is an island from another universe and too much input can pull an athlete in opposing directions.

Take for example death batting – batting at the end of an innings where batsmen try and score as many runs as they can off every ball they face. Some coaches will advise that batsmen should move around in the crease early in the bowlers run up to get the bowler in two minds about where to land the ball. Others will say that a batsman should only move as late as possible, in the bowler’s delivery stride. Some even suggest that you shouldn’t move at all and that a stable base is the best position to strike the ball.

The point is that there is no consensus. There is no one-size-fits-all solution to any problem in sport. However, coaches, especially the so-called ‘experts’ who have been drafted in from an external source, can be driven by their vehement belief that their approach is the correct one.

Worse still is the commonly occurring situation where a coach or captain instructs a player to implement a strategy that does not come naturally to them. For example, a bowling coach might be steadfast in the belief that bowling wide yorkers (very full deliveries) is the best way to restrict run scoring, and will insist that all his bowlers adhere to this plan.

This imposition on a player, in a high pressure situation, does not endear the ‘expert’ to the players. “I’d hazard a guess that this problem occurs in almost every one of our national and provincial sports teams, not just in cricket,” Upton says.

So does all this information actually help? Is there a possibility that athletes feel inundated with information that goes against what feels natural? Upton shares an anecdote that he brings up in conversation with coaches around the world to show how useless the vast majority of expert insight really is.

He once asked Dale Steyn, the South African fast bowler widely considered the greatest at his craft in the modern game, how much advice he has received over the years. Not just any advice from a drunken punter on the boundary or a well-wishing mate over dinner, but advice from someone regarded as an expert.

“Dale reckons that he has easily received over 100 pieces of advice on his bowling action or strategy throughout his career,” Upton says. “How many times did this advice genuinely impact his game? Once or twice, maybe three times at most. I tell this story to coaches all the time. I say, “Consider that when you give a player advice, there is more than a 90% chance that your advice is useless.”

But that is not to say that Upton never seeks external advice. If a player wants help from outside of the playing group, Upton does all that he can to facilitate that dialogue. “The solution is a blue sky and we would never limit ourselves to the knowledge within the playing group,” he says.

Coaches and managers around the world speak of ‘buy-in’, but this generally pertains to a philosophy or strategy implementation. By tapping into the collective intelligence of the playing group and empowering every individual to share insight whenever possible, Upton’s players are bought into a unified ethos and the performances of his athletes are there for all to see. 

CONQA Sport is hosting our second annual Elite Sport Summit in Cape Town from 5 - 7 October 2016.